Thursday, August 28, 2008

How not to network; or, how to get people to like you.

Photo by bluebetty

Recently, I had a fascinating interaction with a woman at a networking event I attend with some frequency. It was the first time we had met, and she was sitting near me at one of the tables as I had just started a conversation with someone else. As has occasionally happened, when the woman I was conversing with heard that my business name was the zen kitchen, she assumed I was a personal chef and got very excited about the possibility of having someone to plan meals for her. Amused, I explained what I actually did, and the fact that one of the things that I love about my business name is that people hear it and immediately ask me "ooh, what's that?" 

Without skipping a beat, the other woman sitting near me, who I'd known all of about 5 minutes, told me that my name was confusing. She also mentioned that, as a Feng Shui practitioner, one of the principles of Feng Shui is that if your business name is confusing, "your business will never take off."

After going over a couple of potential responses in my head, I decided on, "Thank you for your feedback, but I've been doing this for three years, and things seem to be going pretty well."

Mind you, this wasn't the first time I had witnessed someone express confusion over the name of my business. The reason I chose this name, and stay with this name, is because it's a very good representation of who I am as a business owner, strategist and designer, and because frankly, I get many more people who love my business name than I do people who don't get it. But what struck me about this particular interaction was the fact that here was a woman I'd barely met, at an event where the point is to make friends and business contacts, and she's literally telling me that my business will "never take off" because of my business name. Why would someone think that's appropriate?

The point is this: expressing an opinion is one thing. Insulting someone is another. Telling someone that their business is going to fail is a completely new ball game, and one that should NEVER be attempted when the goal is to make solid connections.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Please consider the environment before printing this post

The other day saw a very interesting and heated debate over a hot topic on one of my green business lists - the addition of that little line at the end of e-mail signatures that asks you to "please consider the environment before printing this e-mail." Or it says to "Think Green! Don't Print This E-mail!" Or it says any other of a seemingly endless number of iterations of this single thought: don't waste so much paper.

While I understand the idea, and appreciate it, my objection to these lines is a few-fold:
  1. It assumes that I, the reader, am going to print this e-mail, even if it's just a quick confirmation on something. I'm not.
  2. What if I actually NEED to print the e-mail? The only things I print are receipts, directions, or e-mails that have significant history information related to projects I'm in the middle of at the zen kitchen. This is a total of about 10-15% of my e-mail. Everything else gets deleted or put into a folder. Should I feel like I'm somehow not "considering the environment" because I need paper records of these things? 
  3. While e-mail signatures can be a truly helpful marketing tool, we seem to have reached an age where signatures have gone completely out of hand. People are busy, and while an e-mail signature is a great way to give people the basic information they need to check out your business and contact you, adding a bunch of stuff to the end of your signature dilutes your message, clogs their e-mail and, if they DO need to print it, adds to the amount of paper they need to print. How is that "green?"
Finally, while the issue of office waste is definitely vast, it's been my experience at least that much of that waste isn't because people are printing their e-mails. In some cases yes, high-level executives will have their assistants print every e-mail - either because they don't "get" the e-mail system or because the assistants vet their e-mails and print just the important ones. But this is a systemic issue, and telling the assistants (the people actually printing the e-mails) not to print isn't helping anything - they don't have a choice. Further, if an executive truly doesn't "get" how e-mail works, how will seeing that little line at the bottom of a printed page help? Wouldn't it be better to have a conversation and show him how e-mail works? Or better yet, have the assistant vet all the e-mails according to importance and then let the executive view it? 

The point here is that, in the 10 years that I spent in various capacities at offices all over New England before starting the zen kitchen, the tremendous amount of paper waste I saw rarely came from e-mail. Rather, it came from:
  1. The endless number of forms that were often required to get anything done (the average office I worked in had at least 5-10 forms to fill out depending on what you needed done, and they were always looking to create more forms for things)
  2. In the case of design studios/ad agencies/art departments, printing a new iteration of a brochure/layout/etc. *every* time they made a change to it, no matter how minor. In some places, you even had to print multiples, which would be distributed among various people in the organization. I once had to print out a new 12*18 sheet for a layout edit that included adding a comma. Really. Nothing more - just a comma. 
  3. In the case of mortgage/banking companies (where I worked as an admin assistant before deciding to become a designer - way back in '97-'98), it was filling out a 15-page thick pile of forms just to get a loan package started, then having to make two copies of each package, copies of the related documentation, etc.
Notice, please - none of this involves printing e-mails. So who is that line really helping?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

an ad campaign gone too far?

A friend recently pointed me to a series of illustrated ads for Burger King that she found disturbing. While the comments on the Idea Sandbox (great site, by the way) had a lot more to do with the apparently sexualized nature of many of the ads, I don't know that I necessarily mind that. The illustrations are amusing, very detailed, and I find them kinda funny.

What I wonder about is this: what is their thing against onions? And why do they seem to obsess about pickles so much?

Out of four ads that I've seen (there are a couple of holiday ads I didn't check out), all of them involve onions either as evil dictators (see the Sniper ad) or as victims of humiliation and/or murder (see the Airport and Halloween ads). And the pickles, somehow, are the aggressors in all this. What are they saying about pickles?

All silliness aside, I don't know how I feel about this campaign from Burger King. I've appreciated the up-front approach it takes to many of its in-store campaigns; for example, the taglines on their packaging, noting what an amazing experience you're going to have eating this burger, is always a fun read. But many of their other campaigns, including this one and ANYTHING involving The King, just leave me cold. I guess it's a good thing I don't like fast food.

Monday, August 18, 2008

SEO: Do you need a links page?

One of the more troubling things I see folks do with their sites is get involved in "link exchanges." I'm sure you've seen this - a business owner becomes part of a network of other business owners, and in the interest of building SEO for the group, they create a page on their site that has a link to every other business owner's site on it - regardless of whether that business is in any way related to their own. Great idea, right?

The fact is, those pages don't really do that much for anyone's search rankings - in fact, it could hurt you more than it helps. Search engines look for quality incoming links, which means links from reputable sites that are related to the subject matter at hand. If you have a page full of random links that exist on the page for no other reason than they belong to the same organization as you, they just don't count as quality links.

In addition, think of what you're doing here. By putting these links on your site, you're essentially recommending this other person's business, regardless of whether you have any direct experience with them. So let's say that someone finds another company's website through yours, deals with them and has a horrible experience. They decided to work with them, essentially, on your recommendation. What does that say about you?

The best way to get quality incoming links is by becoming active online - forums, blogs, e-mail lists and social networking sites are all ways to create quality links to your website just by wasting a bit of time on the Internet. There are new social networks created every day - find a few that are relevant to your business, create a profile with a link to your site and a blurb about What You Do, and see if you can start a conversation with a couple of the members. It's a bit time-consuming, yes, but it's easy, and it's much more effective than throwing a bunch of random links pages up.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What should be in your electronic press kit?

So, you've got a great product or service that's just dying to get out there to the public. You know the best way to get noticed is to be featured in magazines, newspapers, etc. You've done your research, made a call to that editor you know will be interested in your product, and the editor says, "great! Just send me your electronic press kit, and I'll take a look at it." Then you realize that you don't have an electronic press kit - and you have no idea where to start putting one together. What the heck do you put in this thing?

The most important things to include in any press kit (digital or physical) are:

• info about your company, you and your products;
• any press coverage you've already received;
• basic contact and where-to-buy information (this should absolutely be separate and easy to find)
• print-quality, professional images of your product, and possibly yourself holding the product. You can also include low-res photos with a note to contact you for high-res photos, since most digital press kits will be e-mailed.

Add to this a sample of the product and a professional photo (8 by 10) of the product for editorial use, and the same thing can go in a snazzy folder to make your physical press kit.

Aside from that, you can also think about things like: what section will this be good for? What makes this product newsworthy? Is there anything unique you can pitch to a specific editor's audience that's different from what everyone else might think of?

For example, most publications already drone on and on about the health benefits of green tea, etc. - but what could you bring to the table that's a new way to think about it? Maybe a recipe for cookies or ice cream that uses green tea? Green tea/honey sorbet (which would, by the way, be amazingly easy to make)? Green tea popsicles with mango juice? What are ways that folks can have green tea without having to drink it as a cup of tea every morning?

Mind you, if you really feel stuck with this, then it's probably time to get in touch with a PR professional to help you get the process going. Public relations is an intense, time-consuming process, and a good PR professional will not only take on that process for you, they'll know outlets you might not have thought of, and can come up with good ideas beyond submitting the product to magazines.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Inside the Sustainable Studio: creating a great (and green!) home office

As both the proprietress of a green business and one of the lucky thousands (maybe millions now?) who are able to work from home, I've been thinking a lot about ways to green my office. Some are fairly obvious: recycle paper, don't print as much, use CFLs, blah blah. But both the challenge and the blessing of the home office is that it's completely yours - you get to do whatever you want to it, and set it up in the way that works best for you. This, oddly enough, is a pretty tall order.

After three years running the zen kitchen out of various home offices (and two years before that moonlighting in Cranston, RI), I've learned the following about balancing sustainability with form/function:

• Natural light is essential. Working in a place with plenty of windows (like my current office, which is basically a closed-in porch banked with windows) not only helps the environment by reducing the amount of energy you need to run lights, etc. it's good for the soul. I can't imagine working by office light anymore. 
• Create a pretty space, using low-VOC paint. It's amazing what a coat of paint will do, and using a low-VOC paint (they're all over the place now) costs a bit more, but it gives you the advantage of being able to actually breathe while you're painting with it. I painted my office on the hottest weekend of the year and there was no paint smell whatsoever while I was doing it. Not only is this better for the environment, it lets you get back to work quickly because your house doesn't reek of fresh paint.
• Make meals in advance for the week. It's hard to get motivated to cook a meal in the middle of the day, which makes the temptation for take-out (and all the containers!) a bit too hard to resist. I've found that having things like brown rice, lentils, etc. handy in the fridge makes it much easier to throw something together. Not only does it save plastic, it saves money.
• Print as much as you can on an as-needed basis. Business cards are important to have on hand (and designed/printed professionally!) but there are certain things, like letterhead, envelopes, etc. that you might not need a lot of. These, I've found, can fairly easily be worked into templates to print as-needed on an inkjet or laser printer without hampering your professional image. That said, it's important to assess your actual stationery needs before embarking on a process like this; short-run printing is expensive, and if you use a lot of letterhead or envelopes on a daily basis, definitely get them printed.
• Gang up errands and meetings so you drive less. This is as much a time-management tip as it is a green tip - traveling to meetings and such is an enormous time suck. I tend to group weekly appointments or meetings with my trips to the gym or other errands, so I block specific periods of time to be out of the office, and bring my gym bag along with me.

Any other telecommuters have green tips to share?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

How well do you communicate?

This past Monday, I had a rather frustrating experience. After a long weekend in Maine, I had scheduled myself to attend Constant Contact's seminar on e-mail marketing for restaurants, which according to their website and every communication I received, was happening at the Boston Public Library (BPL) at 10am. I left early in the morning to run a few errands, didn't have time to check my e-mail before I left, but I figured there would be signs pointing me in the direction of the room the seminar would be in, or some kind of communication about where in the library the seminar was being held.

Unfortunately, there were none. When I asked the person at the front desk, they pointed me to the basement. The people downstairs pointed me upstairs to the first person I talked to. I asked if I could borrow a computer to look up the event, they pointed me to the second floor. I looked the event up on the website - it listed the address of the event, but no room location. I asked the woman at the desk if she knew where the event might be happening, she pointed me back down to the basement. I went to the basement, there were no signs, no doors open, nothing to indicate that this seminar might be happening. After 30 minutes of wandering all over the building, I gave up and went home later that afternoon to find that Constant Contact had sent me an e-mail with the location of the event - at 6:30 Monday morning. In addition, someone from Constant Contact had noticed a twitter post I made about my frustration with being unable to find this event and told me where it was - but I would have had to check my twitter account to see the post.

Mind you, I'm not sharing this story just to rant (although I admit that I am ranting a bit). I'm sharing it because this experience made me think of all the ways that we, as business owners, communicate with our customers - and how often we make unfair assumptions about how people best receive information, or what they do or don't already know.

In this case, Constant Contact unfairly assumed that I would have access to my e-mail at 6:30am on Monday prior to leaving for the event, and didn't feel it necessary to make this information available any other way. As a result, I ended up frustrated and wasted an entire morning. In another case, my otherwise terrific printer failed to get in touch with me when a pattern I'd put in a design was clearly not printing the way that it was meant to, and the job (which was already a rush) had to be rerun. In yet another case, I neglected to communicate to my client exactly when that job was being re-run, and this morning I got an e-mail as the reprinted cards were shipping letting me know that she was hoping to change the paper - and I had to let her know that she couldn't do it this time.

In all of these situations, things ended up working out - but I wonder how many complications and frustrations could be avoided if we were all just a bit more thoughtful about how and what we communicate with our clients. After all, life as a business owner is much more fun when your clients aren't frustrated with you.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Twitter as a networking/marketing tool

There's been quite a bit of buzz lately around twitter's use as a networking and marketing tool, and in some ways, I buy it. But like all social media, I tend to find that twitter has its own special syntax, a way of using it that works best for this application - and really doesn't work the way that some people use it.

For me, twitter is more of a conversation starter than anything, and it's really a *social* media, rather than a marketing platform. Whereas with sites like LinkedIn or Facebook allow you to just sort of have a profile and leave it there, to get the most out of twitter, you really have to use it.

And it's not about just plugging yourself, either - sure, tweeting about some specific thing you're working on can get you some attention, and it's totally fine to plug the occasional blog post/project/etc., but tricks like throwing your business's name into every tweet (a.k.a. twitter post) or making EVERY tweet a link to your latest blog post or project is a quick way to lose followers.

Where I've seen twitter really work is in the sense of community you can build through creating a balance of personal and professional. Since many of the folks I'm following are fellow telecommuters, it's an easy way to share little things and laughs that you wouldn't be able to otherwise, or chat with someone like you would if you were in an office. When combined with the occasional "hey, just finished this project" or "hey, just put this post online - check it out!" you can get some interesting results; I was able to connect with one of my followers (a.k.a. people who read your tweets) recently and point out my work to her after she made a tweet lamenting the lack of good Wordpress themes (the new zen kitchen website is done completely in Wordpress).

So what's the deal here? Why are there so many folks who just use twitter to mention their business 800 times, or to share a link to every blog post they've ever posted? What's the big deal about sharing a personal guffaw now and again?